Photo Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Week One is a liar. I know this, you know this, we all know this. And yet, despite years and years of evidence that we should never, ever make grandiose predictions based off of one week of football, like clockwork, it always happens. The Buffalo Bills are going to the Super Bowl, and we can probably just pencil them in for an undefeated season. Scratch that, put it down in ink. Let’s just give the Minnesota Vikings’ Justin Jefferson the MVP already. It hasn't gone to a non-quarterback in a decade, but who's counting? Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt gets his back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year award, even though he’ll be out for the foreseeable future with a pectoral injury and presumably looking to blindside some random bystander. We can write off the Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, and Los Angeles Rams, too, while we’re at it.
The point is, it’s far too early to say anything definitively (except, maybe, that the Bills are going to the Super Bowl - that one doesn’t feel like an overreaction). The first week of the NFL season is always wacky. Without exception, every roster faced some turnover. New players, new coaches, new schemes, new playbooks, new facilities, new anything, new everything. There’s an adjustment period, and sorry, three preseason games and a limited training camp just doesn’t cut it.
That’s why, I’ve decided to come up with a ranking of all 32 NFL teams in order of how badly they wanted to win in Week 1. Of course, two caveats:
Every NFL team wants to win (I’m not stupid) but some, for several reasons or just one, wanted it a little more than others
Just because a team wanted it doesn’t mean they won, and vice-versa
The NFL will always be an unpredictably wild ride - that’s what makes the season so fun - but hopefully this ranking will clear up any confusion from the past weekend’s (and Monday’s) results.
Tier One: Played Like Their Hair Was on Fire
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2. Kansas City Chiefs
3. Buffalo Bills
Each of these teams came out guns blazing. They waited all offseason for this moment, and they capitalized. The Steelers, in particular, had to hear about how great the Bengals were, how terrible their QB-situation was, how washed-up their defense had gotten, how this was the last year for Mike Tomlin’s losing-record-free resume…blah, blah, blah. So much for that narrative.
Did you know Mitchell Trubisky's nickname is "Mr. Biscuit?" If you don't believe me, check out his Pro Football Reference page. The Trubiscuit started for the Steelers on Sunday. The Chicago Bears drafted him #2 overall and still let him go four years later. The Bears. Now, he just went on the road and defeated the defending AFC Champions in his first start with his new team. Let that sink in for a second.
Tier Two: Patriotic Rush
4. New York Giants
5. Washington Commanders
6. New York Jets
Playing on the weekend of September 11, America was reminded of the horrific terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville. These three teams were all playing for more than just football - they had their entire cities behind them. That’s why if I’m a Jets fan, I’m more than a little concerned. They played with so much effort and enthusiasm and it still didn’t matter.
The Ravens looked almost disinterested in this game until they turned it on in the third quarter. The Joe Flacco revenge-game never materialized, except in the sense that the Ravens got revenge on Flacco for handing him a ridiculous 6-year, $120 million contract after he led them to a Super Bowl victory in 2013. The following season, he would reward their generosity by leading the league with 22 interceptions.
Tier Three: We’ve Got Business to Settle
7. Seattle Seahawks
8. Cleveland Browns
9. Miami Dolphins
10. Minnesota Vikings
11. Carolina Panthers
Lots of little subplots were weaved in and out of these games. The Seahawks wanted to show up their former QB Russell Wilson in front of their fans, the Dolphins wanted to put their division-rival Patriots in their place, likewise with the Vikings and Green Bay. But it was the Browns who had the most to prove.
All offseason, all anyone would talk about was how dumb the Browns front office was for trading for Deshaun Watson, and how absurd ownership was for giving a guy with more than twenty unresolved (at the time) lawsuits a precedent-breaking contract. Well, guess what? Watson wasn’t there - and there are still an awful lot of talented players on this team. Jacoby Brissett is in charge right now, and the Browns played like they wanted the whole NFL to know it - especially Baker Mayfield and the Panthers.
Tier Four: Take It or Leave It, but Mostly Take It
12. Jacksonville Jaguars
13. Los Angeles Chargers
14. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
16. Chicago Bears
17. Philadelphia Eagles
18. Baltimore Ravens
At what point are the Lions no longer just a nice story? They had another furious comeback to pull within a field goal, but this feels eerily similar to last year’s opener when the Lions came back from down 31 - 10 to the San Francisco 49ers only to fall in the end 41 - 33. Everybody seems to love Dan Campbell, so his seat is probably safe for now, but this team needs to start finishing instead of just making things exciting.
Tier Five: You Play to Win the Game, Right?
19. Atlanta Falcons
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
22. Indianapolis Colts
23. New Orleans Saints
24. Las Vegas Raiders
Texans head coach Lovie Smith is in an unenviable position. He was hired one year after his predecessor, David Culley, was given just a single year to turn around a 4 - 12 team. Now, after punting at midfield in overtime and essentially playing for the tie, Lovie has to feel his seat getting a little warmer. Herm Edwards is fuming right now.
The Colts, meanwhile…oooof. What a disappointing result. Houston is not a good team, and now the Colts are looking for a new kicker. Not how you want the season to start, I’m afraid. Here's a scary thought for Colts fans: what if Carson Wentz is actually better than Matt Ryan? It's not impossible.
Tier Six: Forgot to Set Their Offseason Alarm Clocks
25. Denver Broncos
26. Cincinnati Bengals
27. San Francisco 49ers
28. New England Patriots
29. Dallas Cowboys
30. Green Bay Packers
31. Los Angeles Rams
32. Arizona Cardinals
None of these teams played to their potential for various reasons. The Broncos kept sabotaging themselves in the red zone, the Niners had to play in a monsoon, the Cowboys lost Dak Prescott, and so on. The Bengals, though, and Joe Burrow, in particular, looked as if they’d never stepped foot on a football field until Sunday, at least, in the first half. The encouraging part is that even with five turnovers (seriously) in the first half alone, the Bengals never quit, and they fought back to force overtime. To be honest, they should have won the game outright. But this is the NFL. The ball is shaped weird, and it bounces weird sometimes. Next week will be a better indicator for all of these teams, but hopefully this group got their wake-up call.